The Art and Magic of Living
A storied High Point home enters its third act
By Nancy Oakley • Photographs by John Gessner
In 2013, after they had been house hunting for two years, Patrick and Susan Harman had more or less decided on a modern-looking house in High Point’s Emerywood Forest neighborhood. A contemporary look was familiar to Susan, who had grown up in Miami. “Then our Realtor, Elizabeth Sheffield, said, ‘Let me show you one more house.’ It was a gray, rainy March day,” Susan recalls, when they drove through Old Emerywood. After a quick turn on a side street, there it was, crowning a steep hill carpeted with grass and surrounded by old hardwoods: a stately manse with a beige stucco exterior and red-tiled, hip roof. “She showed it,” Susan continues, “And Patrick . . . When I saw his face . . . It didn’t matter what I wanted,” she says with a broad, easy grin. “He’s so stoic. I have to watch for those facial cues. Me? Everybody says, ‘Susan! I know what kind of day you’re having!’”
Something about the house had spoken to her husband’s quiet, pensive nature, a complement to her lively animated demeanor. “I grew up in High Point and really wanted an elegant home,” Patrick says. “I came in this house, saw the library . . .” His blue eyes sparkle as he recalls the moment, before continuing. “Old houses have more character. They’re not cookie-cutter.”
And this one is anything but. “It is important because of its unusual architectural style,” says Preservation Greensboro President and High Point native Benjamin Briggs. “My gut instinct on this house is, High Point was adventurous in its architecture in the 1920s, I think because it was involved in the furniture and design industries,” he adds. Period revival — Tudor, Dutch Colonial, and so forth — was de rigueur among the city’s prosperous citizens, each “giddy” to choose a different architectural style. “That’s where magic happens,” says Briggs. This particular piece of magic was conjured in 1923 by Arthur Ernest Taplin, a civil engineer and builder who helped develop Emerywood and another Uptowne suburb, Sherrod Park. The house bears similar characteristics — the stucco walls and hipped roof — of the better-known A.E. Taplin Apartment Building on nearby Parkway Avenue. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the apartment building (where A.E. Taplin and his wife, Ruth, lived until construction on their house was completed in 1927) is often described as “Spanish Colonial Revival.” But in Briggs’s view, the Taplin house is closer to Italian Renaissance style. “A Spanish style would have had a lower pitched roof and lower eves,” he observes. “This is a tripartite house with a pavilion over the door. There’s symmetry. Popping out are classical columns by the front doorway, rounded arches . . . It’s right out of Andrea Palladio [architect of the Italian Renaissance.] The English copied Palladio.”
Which might explain its appeal to Patrick Harman, an ardent Anglophile, whose shelves of books in the lovely pine-paneled library he so cherishes include tomes from British history to U.K. travel guides — and a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. “Patrick likes to study the struggles of the working classes,” Susan explains, as the two prepare for a trip to Shrewsbury and its environs. During his stint as an adjunct in political science and public policy at Elon University, Patrick was, in 2016, recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to University of Durham, where he could study how the Brits approach community revitalization programs. The sabbatical would inform his role as executive director of his family’s philanthropic organization, the Hayden-Harman Foundation. Formed in the early aughts by Patrick’s mother, Phoebe Norville Harman, a native of Alamance County, and his father, Pat, of NorthState Communications, the foundation has supported myriad causes in the Burlington area such as Alamance Regional Medical Center and the Children’s Museum of Alamance County, as well as initiatives in High Point, including the John Coltrane International Jazz & Blues Festival and revitalization efforts of the city’s historic African-American business and entertainment district along Washington Street. Having retired from UNCG’s SERVE Center, where she and Patrick met while working as senior evaluation specialists, Susan lends a hand to the foundation, particularly with writing grants. Otherwise, her days are filled serving on boards, volunteering and working on her lifelong passion, art.
Her pieces such as a felt landscape she fashioned while she and Patrick were in England, along with colorful gallery acquisitions — with her favorite pops of red — adorn all the rooms. She works on various projects in a small studio in the back of the property, and for 13 years has taken classes from local watercolorist Alexis Lavine and has collected several of the artist’s works.
Susan comes by her talent naturally, from her mother, Virginia Cary Stemples. “She couldn’t stand to have her hands still,” Susan recalls. “We’d be watching TV and she’d be knitting. She did ceramics, so she had a great knowledge of mixing glazes, and that’s a mix of chemistry and just smelling; what works and what doesn’t. Just a wonderful, wonderful woman, and I’m just so thankful that she was my mom.” Several of her mother’s sculptures are scattered throughout and each one has a backstory: On the dining room mantel is an early mother-and-child relief sculpture, Caring, (“This piece she hated,” Susan says. “She hid it on a shelf where my dad would put the mail behind it.”) Farther down the mantel is an animal sculpture done in I976 and puckishly titled Bison-tennial. Elongated metal figures reminiscent of Modigliani (“during her welding phase in the 1970s,” Susan explains) stand sentry by the front door. Across from them is a similar one, “a pivotal piece,” when her mom was transitioning from metal to wood. The wood sculptures are more rounded, such as the two hugging figures that comprise Comforted. It was done from a photograph of Susan as a child, bidding farewell to a playmate when her family moved from Chicago. “She always wanted people to touch her sculptures to create that connection.” And a connection to Susan’s father, John Graydon (“Gray”) Stemples, as well, for he and Susan would take the family’s Boston Whaler out on Florida’s waterways to retrieve pieces of wooden flotsam and jetsom broken off from other boats or ships. “He’d collect this,” Susan recalls. “Work with it, sand it, or whatever to prepare it for my mom’s work. So any piece like this of my mom’s in wood, my dad found it somewhere in the water or on a beach.” Including two more pieces, Sibling Rivalry, a comic tower of children literally climbing over one another, and the rounded, cherubic figure, Cary, named after the Harmans’s eldest child, who along with sisters Allison and Meredith, have grown up and flown the nest.
When the Harmans bought it in 2013, the nest, to Susan’s artistic eye, “had so much potential,” for it had been home to the same family for 50-plus years. Benjamin Briggs remembers driving by the place with his father, who always commented, “That’s Jack Rochelle’s house.”
John Hardin “Jack” Rochelle was one of High Point’s larger-than-life figures, known as much as a business and civic leader as the head of Globe Furniture Company. He was also a passionate outdoorsman and all-around bon vivant. He and his wife, Gloria, purchased the house in 1961 — from its original owner and builder, A.E. Taplin. “My mother had always loved that house,” says Rose Marie Boone, the youngest of the Rochelle daughters, along with Ashley Culler and Julie Rochelle-Stephens. “It was white.” Family lore has it that Gloria Rochelle had gone to Charleston, S.C., for a weekend. “And Dad knocked on the door and said, ‘My wife really loves this house,’” Boone recalls, admitting that the mists of time and memory might have burnished, if not embellished, the absolute facts. “But I think my mother came home from Charleston and got the house she’d always wanted,” she says.
For Boone and her sisters, “Growing up there, it was a wonderful home, but truly a home.” She remembers her parents — “big entertainers” — throwing Christmas parties, and St. Patrick’s Day parties, for which they were known. “They had a player piano and I got to stay up for the party, because I was small enough to pump the pedals,” Boone says. “They had green beer, green everything. One year Dad put green dye on his white hunting dog. That took the cake!” She recounts summers on the huge screened porch, a later addition “where we lived,” because the house had no air conditioning. And the backyard “which went on and on,” with pockets and secret passageways cordoned off by hedges of boxwoods. The breakfast nook was a favorite of her mother’s, who in later, years, liked to sit by its windows watching the birds. “They loved that home,” Boone says wistfully, adding that one of its practical features, an elevator, allowed them to stay in it for so long.
The elevator was one of many elements that caught Susan and Patrick’s attention as they set about to refresh the 1920s confection. But first things first: “We had to have about 10 trees removed,” Susan says. Likely there since A.E. Taplin’s day, the towering hardwoods “were threatening the house,” Patrick explains, remembering some of them crashing down during the ice storms of 2014. The next step was to refurbish the garage apartment, where the Harmans lived for 10 months while the house was being renovated. “You should have seen these three guys carrying this big piece of granite up the stairs,” she says of the kitchen countertop. Their contractor, Bill Waller, came up with the idea of installing a tray ceiling to accommodate Patrick’s height. And a good thing, too, given that the apartment’s current tenant, Blake Tickle, a first-year divinity student at Wake Forest, is a few inches taller. “I think of it as a treehouse,” Susan says of the comfortable space furnished with Mission-style pieces and a few vintage lamps from one of downtown Greensboro’s shops. A painting of jazz musicians hangs prominently as an homage not only to the Coltrane jazz festival but also to Patrick’s and Tickle’s love of music. Both play in the band at their church, Fellowship Presbyterian, on New Garden Road in Greensboro, where Tickle is music director. “That’s what happens when you’re middle-aged,” jokes Patrick. “You go from playing in a rock band to playing in the church band.” For Tickle, the living arrangement is ideal. He can study in peace and quiet, “But there’s the security of knowing, if I need anything, they’re there,” he says of his landlords and friends.
While the Harmans inhabited the apartment, the house would enter its third act. Its symmetry would not change dramatically. But the artist in Susan understood that the key to its transformation was to open up some of the spaces and let in more light. Patrick saw that a downstairs master bedroom would serve them in later years. What better use for that “huge” screened porch that Rose Marie Boone remembered from her childhood?
The result is a calm, airy room in neutral tones, and a shower/steam room with double sinks converted from a narrow half-bath. Three small wrought iron chandeliers with crystal accents hang overhead. Susan chose them, along with everything else in the house. “I walked around for the longest time with pieces of granite and stone in my purse, like this,” she says, clowning around with one shoulder sagging, as if to ape the Hunchback of Notre Dame. “And I’d love to have a garden off the bedroom,” she adds, opening a pair of French doors.
On the opposite side, a small fountain gurgles among playful metal sculptures of animals — birds, insects, a lizard — while a flagstone path leads to a patio where a bench invites one to sit and read or meditate among the hostas, wind chimes and an impressive fig bush. In this lush oasis, it’s as if the city of High Point didn’t even exist. Just beyond is a fenced in grassy area where their two rescue Labs, Jackie and Hoover, can roam. Down another path is Susan’s studio, where, on a long worktable, lies a heap of clay rectangles, which many mistake for wind chimes. “It’s a surround to camouflage the air conditioner,” she explains. “Everybody says, ‘Susan, weren’t you making this a year ago?’” She laughs. “I got bored.” Adjacent is an old gardener’s shed, now a potting shed, and in between, Patrick’s vegetable garden, consisting of neat rows of tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, mint, basil and rosemary. Back up the pathway, one notices those secluded pockets. It ends at the circular driveway and garage, and where, eventually, the Harmans will install an archway by sculptor Jim Gallucci.
Across the driveway, another set of French doors covered in elegant wrought iron grillwork leads to Patrick’s pride and joy, the library. With floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, leather sofa and chairs before a fireplace (converted to gas), it exudes coziness, without a hint of stuffiness. “The bookshelves weren’t here; it took 13 iterations of stain to match the original [pine paneling],” Susan says. A couple of attached ladders that Henry Higgins would envy make for easy access to the top shelves. “I’ve used them,” Patrick says, proudly. In the corner by a window is another addition, a bar. “I use the bar as my desk,” Patrick says. To lighten up the space, they had glass artist Skip White construct a panel that runs around the periphery near the ceiling, creating a pub-like effect.
It echoes the use of glass in the front foyer, on the other side of the handsome, cherry-paneled dining room, where the Harmans’s gray cat, Sasha, leisurely strolls through. The front hallway, says Susan, “is where there’s the most change.” Starting with the stairs, which sagged and had to be reinforced. The hall’s original, cantilevered ceiling once extended all the way to its back wall, but again, Susan’s eye saw that it could be opened up, the upstairs railing reversed, creating more depth — not to mention a space for a chandelier. The room’s other significant modifications? The old elevator that was such a help to Jack and Gloria Rochelle in their waning years was converted to a powder room — handsomely decorated with a reproduction of a London Undergound poster from 1923, the year the house was built. The other major change to the foyer was the front door. In that the only source of light was the Palladian window above it, Susan asked Skip White to install two narrow glass windows on either side and fashion a beveled and slightly stained-glass panel for the door. It opens onto a flagstone terrace, which was laid on top of the original, badly damaged tile. “So thousands of years from now, if they chip away . . .” Susan jokes, trailing off. Standing on it, looking down at the long, grassy slope of lawn, she extols landscapist Benjamin Escalante, who maintains the lawn. “We couldn’t do everything we wanted to do at once,” Susan allows, “so I was like, Benjamin, let’s try this this week. Let’s do this much.’ So it’s a work in progress. But he is very patient with us and will do whatever,’” she says, stopping to admire a purple iris, likely planted by Gloria Rochelle years ago. “I just love her little touches,” Susan comments.
She did little to Gloria’s favorite spot, the breakfast nook, with its charming built-in corner cupboards, other than persuade Bill Waller to remove the old linoleum and restore the floor to its original wood surface — a feat he didn’t think possible. In the kitchen/den or “keeping room,” a wide arch creates the illusion of a much bigger space. Throughout, Susan uses a palette of soft grays, the better to set off her cheery pops of red, whether a pair of salt and pepper shakers in the breakfast nook, or in the keeping room’s various accents: a crimson throw; a petal-shaped votive, a gift from Alexis Lavine; the red river in her felted landscape; the whimsical bright red figure (Susan’s) alongside another in silver (Patrick’s) attached to the den wall, as if they were scaling it.
Upstairs, she has repeated the neutral tones in the baths, each of which was gutted and redone. “Gray-and-white lends itself to so many options; for example, if I want to bring in something gold,” she says pointing to an understated design in one of the bath linens. In the old master bedroom, two closets were converted into one, providing storage space for Patrick’s guitars. His eyes light up again when he recollects the chance to jam with English rockers Uriah Heep, a Valentine’s present that Susan somehow finagled. Otherwise the bedrooms await visits from their daughters and son-in-law. This summer, one will have another occupant, muralist Carolyn Roblyer from St. Croix, who will paint a public mural in High Point. The location has yet to be determined, but “It will be something to do with trains, because Patrick loves trains,” Susan says, “and the reason High Point was named ‘High Point,’” she adds, referencing the city’s position as the highest point on the North Carolina Railroad between Goldsboro and Charlotte.
Otherwise, the Harmans will enjoy their home as a “quiet retreat.” They entertain “some,” says Susan, most notably when the renovation was completed in the summer of 2014. She approached a distant relative of the Rochelles. “I want to throw a party for the house,” she explained. “Because that means 50 years of people in this house. Friends came over. Family members. Year after year, after year. And all of a sudden a new family moves in. And they’re going to drive by it every day or every week, and just wonder, ‘Gosh I wonder what they did?’” Among the guests were Rose Marie Boone and her sister Ashley Culler. “How lovely and gracious of Patrick and Susan to have us over,” Boone enthuses. “They invited not only our family but our extended family. Maybe 30 people. They let us walk through and spend as much time as we wanted in each room,” she says. Boone marveled at the renovations, particularly innovative changes such as the conversion of the elevator to powder room. “Susan would say, ‘I hope you like what we did.’ And I told her, ‘I promise you, my mother is so happy someone who loves this house is in this house. And my dad is thrilled he doesn’t have to pay for it! There are good vibes, I assure you.’”
The good vibes will continue with Roblyer’s visit later this summer, and impending nuptials for one of the Harmans’s daughters. Susan would love to see a wedding on the long, flagstone terrace in front of the house. Should she get her wish, no doubt the spirits of Jack and Gloria Rochelle, Virginia and Gray Stemples, and perhaps A.E. Taplin himself, will hover about bestowing their blessings on the happy couple and enjoying the party. It isn’t such a far-fetched notion. After all, this is a place where magic happens. h
Nancy Oakley is the senior editor of Seasons and its flagship O.Henry.